So a mediocre harvest, made profitable by high prices, is put to bed and the grinding progress towards harvest 2022 begins. In a world that seems less predictable, I suspect I’m not the only one who seeks some comfort from the annual pattern that is the turn of the farming seasons.
Having said that, arable farming does feel as if there are less ‘known knowns’ than there once was. Somehow everything feels a bit more risky when it comes to cropping plans for the forthcoming year. The annual blackgrass battle – that’s now starting to feel like the thirty years war – means second wheats sown in the autumn are at best a gamble and at worst sheer recklessness.
It wasn’t that long ago that second winter wheats were an established part of the rotation on this farm, but now they seem like some sort of dangerous indulgence. So that leaves us with more break crops or more spring sowing. With the rapeseed price so astronomically high that it’s nearly matching the fertiliser price, our plan was to put 30% of the farm down to ‘black gold’. But five miserly millimetres of rain from mid-August to mid-September put pay to that on all but the kindest land.
At least I didn’t have to go through the torture of playing roulette in the cabbage stem cotyledon casino. None the less, the dearth of drilled oilseed rape plants on the farm, together with the cost of the lost opportunity is causing me to lose one or two marbles.
I’m now looking at the 40 hectares of self-sown plants behind last year’s crop through an increasingly warped lens. As I know to my own cost in the past, and as many have reminded me, self-sown OSR crops seldom give decent yields. They seem to grow OK into the spring but then go downhill rapidly as they approach harvest and various diseases start to bite. That old adage that you reap what you sow takes a new version in the sense that you seldom get to reap what sowed itself.
But this year the question is – if prices remain around the £450 mark, then how bad would the yield of a self-sown second OSR crop have to be before it became a mistake to keep it? I’m mindful we’ve got to the autumn without spending anything on it. That’s £50 to £100/ha of saved cultivation, seed and spray cost added to the margin before we’ve started. So to my mind, even 2t/h wouldn’t be a crop of regrets next July. Indeed it could give me a gross margin of around £300/ha, depending on how miserly I manage to get with the inputs.
So as I write I’m devising ways to significantly reduce the plant count, which is about 300% too high by 200 plants/m2 – otherwise known as ‘thick as cress’, not that I grow much cress nowadays. Our first attempt to uproot a couple of hundred plants/m2 is putting the subsoiler through the growing crop, which had four or five true leaves at the equinox.
If I lose my nerve with this current bout of bravado, at least I’m preparing the ground for a crop of wheat which would be my usual preference behind a crop of OSR. With forty acres of this self-sown free gift, I could hedge my bets and leave half of it with the other half ripped up. At the very least it will give me something to write about in CPM. Watch this space…
And I haven’t yet mentioned that this crop is so ‘on message’ when it comes to zero till and carbon capture that it positively makes the latest direct drill look as sinful as a plough.
Guy Smith grows 500ha of combinable crops on the north east Essex coast. @EssexPeasant